Kill the zombies, free the verbs

July 26, 2012

in Grammar, Legal writing, Legalese, Style and usage

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Thoughtful legal writers generally do a good job of eliminating unnecessary uses of passive voice. So why is their writing still so abstract and dense?

The culprit is nominalizations, or zombie nouns, as the beautifully named Helen Sword calls them in a post at the New York Times Opinionator blog. Just as insidious as passive voice but less familiar, zombie nouns suck the life out of otherwise perfectly good writing.

 Here’s a taste of Ms. Sword’s elegant, accessible explanation:

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tendabstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

 Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalizations – has been allowed to remain standing.

Humans 1, zombies 0.


photo credits: zombie_by_uncherished,

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